My Personal Fitness Plan

Kim McSwain

It’s a teacher’s job to be 100 percent focused on her students. Unfortunately, this means that she often loses sight of her own health and wellness. DT spoke to three teachers who, despite schedules that leave little time for anything outside of the dance studio, have managed to develop fitness plans that work. Here’s how they do it.

FROM CHEESEBURGERS TO CHIN-UPS

“I am not one of those people who enjoys working out. In fact, it’s my least favorite thing to do,” says Kim McSwain. During the week, this Dallas, Texas–based mom is constantly moving, keeping up with her 4-year-old daughter Bella. And weekends are reserved for teaching, traveling to NUVO conventions and other gigs across the country. But after turning 35 this year, McSwain has made finding the time to buckle down on her fitness routine a priority.

Naturally thin, she has struggled throughout her life to put on weight. But she hasn’t always gone about it in the healthiest way. “I used to eat between 4,000 and 5,000 calories per day just to stay at 115 pounds,” she says. “I went to my trainer and told him that things have to change.” Now, she’s working out with him three days a week, and on days off, she opts for a two- to three-mile walk or run with her dog. In the gym, her focus is on staying fit, bulking up and keeping the weight on. “Twice a week, we do a circuit of full-body, high-intensity training exercises that are pretty brutal,” McSwain says, but not nearly as bad as their third session, which she refers to as “the torture treatment”: 13 different exercises done as quickly as possible, always trying to beat her previous time. “Most days I lie on the ground in between sets and act very dramatic,” she says. “It’s like an obstacle course of pain.”

Why does she put herself through it? “Staying in shape is part of my job,” she says. “When I’m in front of kids, talking about their core and doing ab exercises, I have to be able to do them myself.”

Her diet has changed, too. “I can’t tell you how unhealthily I used to eat: Red Bull to start my day, followed by Jack in the Box cheeseburgers,” she says. But meals now consist of hard-boiled eggs, hummus, fresh vegetables, salads with as much color as possible and tons of water. And she is constantly eating little handfuls of snacks throughout the day.

“I used to hear people talk about eating healthy and think, ‘That sounds awful; go eat a hamburger and get a life,’” she says. “But I would never go back to eating the way that I did or not working out. I carry myself differently now, and my energy level has gone up. Taking an hour or two a day to go for that walk or go to the gym, it’s worth it.”

MORNING GLORY

Sheila Barker’s teaching schedule is jam-packed. Juggling classes from morning until night as adjunct professor of jazz at Marymount Manhattan College and teaching seven classes at Broadway Dance Center in New York City, she has to make some sacrifices to get her workout in, like waking up as early as 4 am.

Every morning, she does a series of exercises ranging from sun salutations to sit-ups. “I’ll do a meditation, some strengthening, yoga, breathing, whatever I can get in there,” she says. The routine ranges in length, but if she has the time, she’ll keep at it for an hour and might even add a full ballet barre. “Working out is something I love,” she says. “It’s been a part of my life ever since I’ve been in this industry.”

Yoga and meditation have let Barker do something she rarely has time for: relaxing. “It used to be hard for me to sit still,” she says. “I’m a New Yorker, always running to the next place, without enough time to get there. Yoga has helped me gain a little perspective and be able to just breathe.” She takes a vinyasa flow yoga class once a week. “It’s the best time of my life,” she says. “It’s my ‘me’ time.”

And students expect to see Barker in the studio 20 to 25 minutes before class to stretch and warm up. “I have to be sure I don’t hurt myself,” she says. “In class, I don’t just sit and point. I’m a full-out girl.”

She’s full-out when it comes to her diet, too. A vegan for about 20 years, Barker has also cut back on her sugar intake and tries to eat mostly organic foods. “But I’m not crazy about it,” she says. “If I’m eating out with friends or if I’m out of town and they don’t have organic options, I just work with what’s available.”

CONSTANT CARE

During the few years before Donna Silva’s parents passed away, she slipped out of her usually consistent workout routine while caring for them. And she felt the effects. “I was barely able to walk,” she says. “My knees hurt, my ankles hurt, my back hurt.”

At 65, this Boston-based teacher’s focus is on never letting that happen again. But amid a busy schedule teaching ballet, pointe, pedagogy and Pilates at The Boston Conservatory, Pilates at Mindful Bodyworks and ballet at The Gold School, it’s difficult to find the time to stay in shape. She exercises in doses, stretching or doing yoga between classes. Usually, she chooses Pilates, which she discovered about eight years ago when dancing became too hard on her knees. “When I started doing Pilates, I found that the pain in my knees receded,” she says. “I thought, ‘I should give this to my dancers.’ So I got certified.” A gym close to home has a reformer machine, so she’ll often make a pit stop to do a slow workout. Plus, she takes private Pilates lessons about once a week and weight trains with a trainer every two weeks. “I like to work with someone else, so I don’t get into any bad habits,” she says. “Sometimes it’s awfully hard to find the time, but I found out the hard way what happens if I don’t.”

When she’s feeling unmotivated, her students inspire her. “It’s important for me to guide them in the proper way,” she says, recalling how unhealthily she lived as a young dancer. “I did a poor job nutritionally. I ate practically nothing, and my body suffered.” She now sees a nutritionist, and her diet consists mostly of protein and vegetables. “My downfall is ice cream,” she says. “I indulge at the end of the week. You can’t just give everything up.” DT

Photo: Kim McSwain (by Brian Guilliaux, courtesy of Kim McSwain)

Music
Mary Malleney, courtesy Osato

In most classes, dancers are encouraged to count the music, and dance with it—emphasizing accents and letting the rhythm of a song guide them.

But Marissa Osato likes to give her students an unexpected challenge: to resist hitting the beats.

In her contemporary class at EDGE Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles (which is now closed, until they find a new space), she would often play heavy trap music. She'd encourage her students to find the contrast by moving in slow, fluid, circular patterns, daring them to explore the unobvious interpretation of the steady rhythms.


"I like to give dancers a phrase of music and choreography and have them reinterpret it," she says, "to be thinkers and creators and not just replicators."

Osato learned this approach—avoiding the natural temptation of the music always being the leader—while earning her MFA in choreography at California Institute of the Arts. "When I was collaborating with a composer for my thesis, he mentioned, 'You always count in eights. Why?'"

This forced Osato out of her creative comfort zone. "The choices I made, my use of music, and its correlation to the movement were put under a microscope," she says. "I learned to not always make the music the driving motive of my work," a habit she attributes to her competition studio training as a young dancer.

While an undergraduate at the University of California, Irvine, Osato first encountered modern dance. That discovery, along with her experience dancing in Boogiezone Inc.'s off-campus hip-hop company, BREED, co-founded by Elm Pizarro, inspired her own, blended style, combining modern and hip hop with jazz. While still in college, she began working with fellow UCI student Will Johnston, and co-founded the Boogiezone Contemporary Class with Pizarro, an affordable series of classes that brought top choreographers from Los Angeles to Orange County.

"We were trying to bring the hip-hop and contemporary communities together and keep creating work for our friends," says Osato, who has taught for West Coast Dance Explosion and choreographed for studios across the country.

In 2009, Osato, Johnston and Pizarro launched Entity Contemporary Dance, which she and Johnston direct. The company, now based in Los Angeles, won the 2017 Capezio A.C.E. Awards, and, in 2019, Osato was chosen for two choreographic residencies (Joffrey Ballet's Winning Works and the USC Kaufman New Movement Residency), and became a full-time associate professor of dance at Santa Monica College.

At SMC, Osato challenges her students—and herself—by incorporating a live percussionist, a luxury that's been on pause during the pandemic. She finds that live music brings a heightened sense of awareness to the room. "I didn't realize what I didn't have until I had it," Osato says. "Live music helps dancers embody weight and heaviness, being grounded into the floor." Instead of the music dictating the movement, they're a part of it.

Osato uses the musician as a collaborator who helps stir her creativity, in real time. "I'll say 'Give me something that's airy and ambient,' and the sounds inspire me," says Osato. She loves playing with tension and release dynamics, fall and recovery, and how those can enhance and digress from the sound.

"I can't wait to get back to the studio and have that again," she says.

Osato made Dance Teacher a Spotify playlist with some of her favorite songs for class—and told us about why she loves some of them.

"Get It Together," by India.Arie

"Her voice and lyrics hit my soul and ground me every time. Dream artist. My go-to recorded music in class is soul R&B. There's simplicity about it that I really connect with."

"Turn Your Lights Down Low," by Bob Marley + The Wailers, Lauryn Hill

"A classic. This song embodies that all-encompassing love and gets the whole room groovin'."

"Diamonds," by Johnnyswim

"This song's uplifting energy and drive is infectious! So much vulnerability, honesty and joy in their voices and instrumentation."

"There Will Be Time," by Mumford & Sons, Baaba Maal

"Mumford & Sons' music has always struck a deep chord within me. Their songs are simultaneously stripped-down and complex and feel transcendent."

"With The Love In My Heart," by Jacob Collier, Metropole Orkest, Jules Buckley

"Other than it being insanely energizing and cinematic, I love how challenging the irregular meter is!"

For Parents

Darrell Grand Moultrie teaches at a past Jacob's Pillow summer intensive. Photo Christopher Duggan, courtesy Jacob's Pillow

In the past 10 months, we've grown accustomed to helping our dancers navigate virtual school, classes and performances. And while brighter, more in-person days may be around the corner—or at least on the horizon—parents may be facing yet another hurdle to help our dancers through: virtual summer-intensive auditions.

In 2020, we learned that there are some unique advantages of virtual summer programs: the lack of travel (and therefore the reduced cost) and the increased access to classes led by top artists and teachers among them. And while summer 2021 may end up looking more familiar with in-person intensives, audition season will likely remain remote and over Zoom.

Of course, summer 2021 may not be back to in-person, and that uncertainty can be a hard pill to swallow. Here, Kate Linsley, a mom and academy principal of Nashville Ballet, as well as "J.R." Glover, The Dan & Carole Burack Director of The School at Jacob's Pillow, share their advice for this complicated process.

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Teachers Trending

From left: Anthony Crickmay, Courtesy Dance Theatre of Harlem Archives; Courtesy Ballethnic

It is the urgency of going in a week or two before opening night that Lydia Abarca Mitchell loves most about coaching. But in her role as Ballethnic Dance Company's rehearsal director, she's not just getting the troupe ready for the stage. Abarca Mitchell—no relation to Arthur Mitchell—was Mitchell's first prima ballerina when he founded Dance Theatre of Harlem with Karel Shook; through her coaching, Abarca Mitchell works to pass her mentor's legacy to the next generation.

"She has the same sensibility" as Arthur Mitchell, says Ballethnic co-artistic director Nena Gilreath. "She's very direct, all about the mission and the excellence, but very caring."

Ballethnic is based in East Point, a suburban city bordering Atlanta. In a metropolitan area with a history of racism and where funding is hard-won, it is crucial for the Black-led ballet company to present polished, professional productions. "Ms. Lydia" provides the "hard last eye" before the curtain opens in front of an audience.

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